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Review: Just in Case

Oct. 15th, 2009 | 09:34 am

Review: Just in Case: How to be Self-Sufficient when the Unexpected Happens, by Kathy Harrison

In Aesop’s fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper, the Ants dutifully prepare while the Grasshopper fiddles away. He scoffs at the Ants, pointing out that food is plentiful and they should have fun while they can. When winter hits, the Grasshopper would have died if it weren’t for the help of the ants.  In Kathy Harrison’s Just in Case, we are reminded that a little organization, preparation, and planning can keep our families safe and comfortable when something happens.

Rather than scare us with the ideas that the sky is falling and no one can help up, Kathy Harrison assures her readers that yes, sometimes bad things happen, but not only can you and your family survive, but you can be comfortable, happy, and good neighbors to others. Whether the issue is a rolling blackout because of an overstressed power grid, a harder winter than expected, or even an injury that can leave a family member unable to go grocery shopping for a few weeks, we should know that something CAN and probably WILL happen. It isn’t insane paranoia to plan to keep one’s family comfortable any more than health and car insurance are paranoia. 

Though she is far more self-sufficient than most of us will ever be, she assures us that thriving in a snow storm, a flood, or rolling blackouts is within the average family's grasp. Rather than panicking every time we hear a warning and running to Walmart to buy them out of bottled water and canned foods, she give the reader a flexible but clear method for stocking up a home and getting the whole family involved. She reminds us throughout to be one of the good guys--not hording those last-minute emergency supplies and sharing if possible with some of our less-prepared neighbors.

This is a wonderful handbook for any house than needs suggestions on how to make a 72-hour kit, to make sure the kids don't freak out in emergencies, and to keep a family together, safe, comfortable, and well-fed in any kind of emergency. She isn't telling us how to skin animals or set traps or survive in the brush. Use survival manuals for that. She is showing us how to avoid having to stay in emergency shelters or to need FEMA every time Mother Earth goes a little crazy. This book had the added benefit over many other preparedness guides I’ve seen in giving clear ways to involve the kids in planning, preparation, and preparedness. After reading this, I actually felt like I could do those little things you’re supposed to do with the kids without scaring them—my son can now dial 911 for the police, firemen, or doctors. Next step—fire drills.


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Review: The Naked Roommate

Oct. 15th, 2009 | 09:23 am

The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into In College, by Harlan Cohen.
According to (an annoyingly un-cited) study in Skip Downing’s On Course, only about 15% of people who are fired are fired because they can’t do their “job.” They are incompetent. The other 85% are fired because they lack “soft skills”—interpersonal skills, time management, the ability to party and have a life and then come in to work and do their jobs. I doubt the Department of Education has ever done a similar study, but I’d be willing to believe the same is true for college students. The hardest part of college isn’t studying and academics. Well, OK, those are hard. But everyone expects them to be hard.
What they don’t expect are roommates who run around naked, one night stands they can’t remember, or crushing homesickness. Those are the soft skills that you never get in high school, from parents (especially for first generation students), from the admissions office, or even from college classes. As a professor who teaches a Freshman seminar class at our university (and university librarian), I’ve tried to teach these kinds of skills to my students. But I know that I come off sounding like a teacher—take notes, don’t drink too much, wear a condom, study 3 hours for every hour you are in class—and I’m sure my students listened to me as much as I listened when I was in college. The book we use to teach them these skills was worse. It’s hokey, patronizing, and frequently overlooks the reality of college life.

The Naked Roommate covers everything I really do wish I knew in college, without ever coming across as condescending or omniscient. Harlan wasn’t a stellar student, but he made things work. He has the tone I wish I could have with my freshmen. He’s the older brother who is willing to tell you exactly how much you will really drink, and thinks it's great if you decide not to. But he’s also the older brother who won’t listen to your crappy excuses—screw peer pressure, he says, if you do drugs it’s because you wanted to do them. He gives tips on how to cheat a little smarter, and then reminds you that if your dumb ass gets caught cheating, you deserve to be expelled. He gives you a whole toolkit of things to help first year college students (commuters, non-traditional students, and international students all get tips in here). I’m hoping that using this book in little bits and pieces in my seminar class will convince students to read it themselves and get all the good information.

That 15% statistic comes into play when you look at the topics he covers, too. Only ONE chapter covers typical academic topics such as note-taking and how to make an A, C, or F (and, to bruise my ego a little, I think he mentions a librarian once). He devotes an entire chapter to relationships and another chapter to sex, though. There’s at least 85% of this book that covers the softer skills in college life. He repeats the one bit of advice I hope all my students leave knowing, though: get to know your professors. Only he gives tips on how (and how not) to do it.

Those of us who made it all the way through college needed this information. Those who started college and didn’t make it through probably really needed this information.

Rather than get your high school graduate another copy of “Oh, The Places You’ll Go,” think about packing them off with a copy of this book.

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Review: How Women Got their Curves

Oct. 15th, 2009 | 09:21 am

Review: How Women Got Their Curves and Other Just-So-Stories: Evolutionary Enigmas
By David Barash and Judith Lipton

As an undergraduate, I had to write a paper for my evolution class on some mystery of evolution. I wanted to pick a topic I didn’t think my professor would know too much about, so I decided to research why human females have menstrual periods. It is a classic example of trying to determine the evolutionary cost/benefit to a part of half the population’s lives. Barash and Lipton (a husband/wife team of evolutionary biologist and psychiatrist) examine this and a handful of other “women’s mysteries” in this highly entertaining, well researched and approachable book.

This book is clearly intended for the reader who may not know all the details behind the theory of evolution, such as sexual versus natural selection or adaptive versus nonadaptive mutations. By reading this book, you’ll not only learn what those mean, you will gain insight into how a wide array of scientists contribute to the explanation of evolutionary mysteries. Not only is it an interesting book, it is a great primer into evolutionary theory—and not just human evolution.

While the chapter on menstruation was old news to me (almost all of the research I used in my paper was used by these authors, though they did leave out a random hypothesis about soy consumption), the chapters on breasts, orgasm, ovulation, and menopause were new. They even took some of the theories I had just accepted (such as breasts being a mimic of the buttocks and orgasm in women being akin to nipples on men—they are just there because of fetal development) and pointed out the flaws with those theories, the support and flaws for other theories, and their own theories. Unlike many books on similar topics, these authors concede that 1) there is no way one theory could explain everything about any of these topics; a constellation of factors could be at play and 2) they just don’t and can’t know all the answers. I do wish the authors spent more time than they did considering the cost of each of these issues. Evolution isn’t just about benefit—it’s about costs. I concede, however, that if they covered the costs as much as I wanted, the book would have been much slower.

Because this book was intended for a non-specialist crowd, some of the information tends to be repeated and some details are left out. However, I think most specialists or even courses on evolution would enjoy adding comments to this book. And let’s face it, half the fun of books showing us an array of hypotheses is ripping them to shreds!


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Review: Forbidden Words

Jun. 21st, 2009 | 04:56 pm

Forbidden Words: Taboos and the Censoring of Language, by Keith Allan and Kate Burridge

Why is it taboo to talk about menstruation, yet a little more acceptable to refer to “Aunt Flo?” How does something go from being offensive to politically correct (such as race or sexual orientation)? Why are some words offensive by merit of association (i.e. niggardly)?


There are words you shouldn’t say in front of children, in mixed company, or to your mother. There are topics best to be avoided. There are terms that get bleeped, politely ignored, and words we tie ourselves into knots to find euphemisms for. These are our forbidden words. They are forbidden because they describe our taboos in frank and blunt ways. We find roundabout ways to describe sex, excrement, eating, menstruation, and death for a reason. The authors of this book explore that reason. They delve into what makes a topic taboo, then into what makes a word taboo. 


In general, the authors do not consider censorship—political reasons for considering certain words or topics off-limits or an organized, mandated way of making them so. They are mainly interested in the limits we put on ourselves, on our understanding of social mores that keeps us from spouting off like George Carlin at a business meeting.


While this is a slow and scholarly read, it is unbelievably useful to anyone interested in language and the anthropology of language. Highly recommended.


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Review: St. Lucy's Home for Girls Rised by Wolves.

Jun. 21st, 2009 | 02:19 pm

St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, by Karen Russell

Childhood is an unreal world. Children are surrounded by giants with unusual motivations and trying to understand them (or worse, become them) is confusing and frightening. The rules of friendship, devotion, maturation, and secrets are opaque and ever-changing. “When you’re a kid, it’s hard to tell the innocuous secrets from the ones that will kill you if you keep them,” Russell reminds us. Russell captures this and translates these worries, fears, and horrors for us adults. Her attempts at translation make the stories sound magical, or just plain weird, to an adult. We no longer have to imagine how our children view us (because we do forget). Russell has written this book.


She reminds us how important parents are to children, especially how we are viewed in their eyes, in “from Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration.” Though the notion of having the Minotaur for a father is mystical, having parents who fight and then mysteriously make up the next day is not. Wondering how your father sees you is not. “I have been eagerly awaiting just such a disaster. Storms, wolves, snakebite, floods—these are the occasions to find out how your father sees you, how strong and necessary he thinks you are,” the Minotaur’s son tells us. It’s only after reading it that I realized how true that statement is. She peppers her fables and tall tales with these truisms. 


 If you ever want to see how protective a child can feel about his parents, read “Lady Yeti and the Palace of Artificial Snow.” And if you ever wonder to what lengths children regularly go to please parents, read “Accident Brief, Occurrence #00/422.”


Stories capturing the fears of becoming an adult include “Ava wrestles and Alligator” and the title story. The girls in these two stories have such amazing and unbelievable back stories; Ava is left to mind a teenaged older sister who is possessed by male demons and left in charge of an alligator ranch in the middle of nowhere. The girls at St. Lucy’s must leave their werewolf parents and learn to become real humans. And yet these story elements feel normal when the narrators describe their lives. What isn’t normal is becoming a young lady or encountering sexuality. Those are frightening. Werewolf parents and tame alligators are not. Even changing how the world is viewed is frightening, especially when our friends start leaving us behind, as is covered in “Z.Z.’s Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers.”


As I was reading these stories, I just kept saying “This is so weird.” I said it so often, my boyfriend decided he had to read the book (this is not a small feat).  As grownups, we are lucky enough to have forgotten all our childish fears and misgivings. As parents, these stories can remind us of what are children are going through. There is rarely clear resolution in these stories. While this is occasionally unsatisfying, I realize that Russell isn’t giving us plot, and plot is the only thing that can be resolved nicely. She is giving us a glimpse of the people we wish we weren’t-our younger selves. And those are never resolved.


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Jun. 21st, 2009 | 01:45 pm

 Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence, by Amy Sedaris.
When opening your home to a guest, you are saying “I like you, I want you to be comfortable and happy. I like you.” And how would you accomplish this if you've got a twisted sense of humor and have your irony meter set on "High" all the time? You'd get the book that Martha Stewart would have written if she could take the stick out of her ass and not take herself so seriously.

This is the sentiment that runs through Amy Sedaris’s cookbook. As you read, though, it’s important to keep in mind, Ms. Sedaris is the same woman who brought the world Strangers with Candy and who works frequently with her brother, David (I would love to take a peek at that family’s DNA). If Martha Stewart is too prissy for you, Paula Deen too properly Southern, Rachael Ray too peppy, and Alton Brown too smart, Amy’s book is perfect. If you get all your news from the Daily Show, Amy’s book is perfect.

Though I’m sure siblings hate being compared to each other, it’s impossible not to here. Just as David tells witty stories about everything, Amy tells them about cooking and being a good hostess. Sometimes, you have to wonder “Is this part the joke, or the real suggestion.” And the fun is in not knowing.

She peppers the book with Girl Scout-y suggestions and pictures that look right out of a 1970’s Ladies Home Journal. But she gives damn good recipes for pie crusts and actually tells useful suggestions on how to get all kinds of stains out (urine, blood, vomit). Her menu plans and suggestions are great, too. While I seriously doubt I’ll ever play host to a group of lumberjacks, I can see making the Lumberjack Dinner on a winter night for a large group. The party plans should probably be viewed as ways to relax while planning a party, though. I’m not sure how well the game “Gypsy” would go with real children, but it is quite cathartic to think of leaving kids somewhere new and having them find their way home while planning a 6-year-old’s birthday party. Her recipes tend to be very Greek, so I’m not sure I’ll actually cook much of her suggestions, but now I know how to store meatballs in the freezer!

This book covers everything needed for planning a party, from the guest list (with suggestions not to invite the newly divorced couple or other unwise pairings), how to write a good invitation, and what to bring as a hostess gift (NOT flowers). She also considers special occasions, such as having (or being) a houseguest, what to do when your rich old uncle stops by, how to deal with the grieving, and how to take care of the sick and old.

If you were too busy reading Me Talk Pretty One Day to pay attention to your home ec teacher, this book is for you!

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Review: The Last Human

Jun. 16th, 2009 | 01:02 pm

Review: The Last Human: A Guide to Twenty-Two Species of Extinct Humans


Missing link has always been such an annoying term. This book beautifully illustrates why.
In The Last Human, 22 transitional species of hominids are described and discussed. The entries are in chronological order, from Sahelanthropus to Homo sapien, with extra attention on some of the more popular species (especially Australopithecus afarensis, aka Lucy). Rather than presenting the notion that humans were an inevitable outcome of evolution, the authors present this "family album" as a way to clearly demonstrate a basic tenant of evolution: we are not the end outcome-the finished product of evolution-we are just one outcome. This is an oft-overlooked message in evolution and anthropology.
The authors list the bones found and their locations, describe what the bones can tell us about the size, stature, appearance, and abilities of these ancestors. They also describe any other materials found that help in understanding the species in question, such as footprints, tools, or other artifacts.
For this part of the book, it is useful to have a basic understanding of osteology and anatomy; while the authors frequently explain that the location of the foramen magnum can indicate whether an animal is a biped or quadruped (and what the foramen magnum is), they don't do as good a job explaining how dentition can help scientists make assumptions about the diet of a creature.
In addition to parsing out the remains, the authors present incredibly life-like illustrations of each species. This is the most unique part of the book and is well worth the purchase price. The captions here were a bit aggravating (the author of captions engaged in quite a bit more conjecture than he did in the main texts). However, the images are so realistic, they look like snapshots.
This book would be an excellent addition to the library of anyone interested in physical anthropology or human origins and would be a great recommended text for an anthropology class. A basic understanding of osteology and anthropology are needed to fully enjoy this book.

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Review: Dinner with a Cannibal

Jun. 16th, 2009 | 12:49 pm

Dinner with a Cannibal: The Complete History of Mankind's Oldest Taboo.
The history and psychology is far more interesting, ancient, and intricate than Thomas Harris would lead you to believe after reading The Silence of the Lambs. Travis-Henikoff takes her dual loves of food and cultural anthropology and weaves an excellent description of cannibalism. She begins with a very clear description of all the kinds of food humans eat. This puts the reader in the proper mindset: to understand cultures other than your own, you have to stop thinking that your culture is the only one that has it right. I must admit, I learned more about the edible parts of an animal from this book than I would have liked, but this knowledge helped me to remember throughout the book that humans have a special relationship with food.

She then explains the various types: exocannibalism (eating enemies), endocannibalism (eating loved ones) and survival cannibalism (the Donner Party). All of this goes along with the special relationship with food. She is not judgmental of the societies that practiced cannibalism; in fact, she makes it feel foolish to denigrate “savages” who eat their loved ones (sometimes negatively effecting their own health) to make sure their souls are completely gone to the other side. She is not judgmental of those who are forced into cannibalism because of their situations, such as soldiers forced to eat their captives (though she does appropriately rebuke their commanders) or the men who crashed in the Andes. She does a wonderful job of describing their situations and of showing how these people accepted their acts as their new normal.

She gives almost no attention to those who act outside of societal norms; cannibalistic serial killers do not tell us useful things about a culture in the same way as cannibalistic funerary rights do. She does, however, show how deeply rooted cannibalism is in our psyches, both by showing how long humans have been cannibals and also by delineating all the cannibals in our children’s stories. Unfortunately, she does go into quite a few tangents-all related to anthropology and interesting, but not adding significantly to understanding her thesis.

Dinner with a Cannibal shows the reader what so many books on the anthropology of food try so hard to explain: food is a vital part of our lives, cultures, histories, and futures. Our religious beliefs, health, and societal structure all circle around what we put into our bodies. This is a book about life more than death, about food more than sickness, and an attempt to overcome ethnocentrism.

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Vocabulary Lesson: Uxorious and Cynosure

May. 17th, 2009 | 04:04 pm

Uxorious: excessively submissive or devoted to one's wife.  (thefreedictionary.com)

Sighting: Alphabet Juice, by Roy Blount Jr., pg. 109: "In 1981, Kael showed me the galleys of her review of Reds, in which she had described Warren Beatty's character as pussy-whipped.  'You can't say that in the New Yorker!' I exclaimed.  She didn't see why not.  I suggested uxorious.  She rolled her eyes.  In the end, she let it be changed to timid."

1. An object that serves as a focal point of attention and admiration.
2. Something that serves to guide. (the freedictionary.com)
Sighting: Alphabet Juice, pg. 157.  Quoting Ford Madox Ford (about Henry James)  "...But what do I say?  Of our cynosure!  Mr. Kipling uttered words which have for himself no doubt a particular significance but which to me at least convey almost literally nothing beyond their immediate sound..."  then... "Cynosure, of course, is the center, the focal point, of attention-someone of whom the culture is making much.  And yet, the word comes from the Greek for 'dog's tail.'"

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Review: Street Gang

May. 4th, 2009 | 12:21 pm

Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street, by Michael Davis
My earliest memories of childhood all involve Sesame Street. My baby blanket had embroidered pictures of Big Bird and the gang and I carried that thing around until I was 10. I knew I had to read this book.

And that is the only reason I spent so long reading it. The prologue was a wonderful remembrance of Jim Henson (yes, I remember exactly where I was when I learned he'd died) and almost had me in tears. Then the next 11 chapters were a slow slog through personal histories of anyone associated with the early days of the show. And their parents. And assistants. And spouses. And all the other childrens' shows and all their stars' histories. The sentences and paragraphs were convoluted, which exacerbated the back and forth history the author gave of all these people (I really did not need to know about Joan's dad's suicide or how she felt about going to a Catholic high school).
After over a hundred pages, I'd read about Captain Kangaroo, the Ding Dong School, Howdy Doody, Romper Room, and a myriad other shows. I got a detailed description of the station screens. But I got nothing about Sesame Street. This book would have been saved by a better editor.


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